Friday, January 4, 2013

Is the Catholic Church Losing the Younger Generation?

A Sky View repost: “Is the Catholic Church losing our younger generation?” was a series of four posts originally published in 2011. To make the reading a bit more fluid, I decided to edit and combine the four parts into one post. However, it is by far one of Sky View’s longer posts (about 3,000 words). In any event, I hope it is worth the read.

Prepare for the Challenges:

Is the Catholic Church losing our younger generation on some very important issues? In terms of numbers, yes! It's probably not news to anyone that an increasing number of young people are gravitating closer to Hollywood values and than they are to Gospel values. With regard to premarital sex, this has certainly been the case for three to four decades. However, a new attitude is emerging about the very essence of marriage. This, to be sure, has far reaching consequences. But I have to wonder if the Catholic Church is on top of it. I have not witnessed an urgency proportionate to the crisis at hand among our Shepherds. Keep in mind that this same Church was slow in responding to the Reformation in the sixteenth century. Luther broke away from the Catholic Church in 1517. Soon thereafter, an avalanche of Christians leaving Mother Church was well underway. By the time the Catholic hierarchy took the crisis seriously it was in 1545. It was at this time they convened the Council of Trent. But much of the damage had already taken place. Again, I wonder if Catholics are finding themselves unprepared for another storm. Let me explain.

In a 2011 Fox News article, I discovered that my personal experience as a faith formation teacher was not an isolated one. The Pew Research Center Poll found that “Americans were opposed to gay marriage by nearly 2-1 a decade ago, the latest poll showed 45 percent in support of it, with 46 percent in opposition.” No doubt, gay rights activism has long advanced its cause through the entertainment culture, the media and in universities. However, in public high schools, and even in the lower grades, the gay rights agenda has become part of the curriculum.

Even here in Northeast Wisconsin, which, I believe, is considered part of the heartland, educators celebrate a gay rights day. Now, if the heartland is regarded as mainstay of traditional values, certainly the East and West Coast in America is even more aggressive in pushing gay rights. To be sure, the social agenda is every bit as important, if not more so, than academic excellence in public schools.

Whenever I can, I seek to find out where the younger generation is on the issues. In my faith formation classes I took surveys on my students views- ages ranging from ninth and tenth graders - on same-sex marriage and cohabitation. Two years in a row the majority of my students opted in favor of both lifestyles. Now, the parish I belong to is considered to be a “flagship” parish of the diocese; that is, a parish that the bishop sets up as a model to be imitated. Indeed, it is a Christ-centered, orthodox parish. But the public school students who have attended its faith formation classes on a weekly basis have been, at least with regard to sex and marriage, more influenced by Secularism than by Catholicism.

To interject a positive note: There is little doubt that God is raising up a new generation of youth and young adults in the Catholic Church. These young men and women who are devoted to Christ and the mission of his Church are, in my opinion, the most zealous and well formed youth we have seen in centuries. With that said, however, I also believe they are a remnant in comparison to the scores of adolescents and young adults that are being lost to the world.

The Youth and Gay Marriage:

As the Pew Research Center Poll indicates, gay marriage is gaining acceptance in our younger generation. Although the majority of California citizens voted for Proposition 8 (a ballot proposition and constitutional amendment passed in 2008 which provides that only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized) 66 percent of voters under the age of thirty voted against it. When this younger generation comes of age and assumes key leadership positions in our country, the campaign to redefine marriage will be close to being realized.

Keep in mind that if a redefinition of marriage succeeds, it also succeeds in redefining the image of God, which, as we know, is the union between a man and a woman. After all, it is through the father and the mother that a child comes to know God, the world and himself. When this image is blurred then the perception of God and the world is blurred as well. Therefore, the redefinition of marriage has far reaching consequences.

The wide acceptance of homosexuality and same-sex marriage will pose an even greater threat to the moral fabric of American than legalized abortion. What Roe versus Wade was to the human dignity of the unborn, the sanction of same-sex rights is to the dignity of every human being. In other words, the pro-choice ideology changed what some people believe about the unborn, but the belief that same-sex marriage is the moral equivalent to traditional marriage will change what people believe about every human being.

We can no more redefine marriage than we can redefine human nature. But let there be no doubt, if same-sex unions are regarded as being equal to a marriage between a man and woman, then people will take it to mean that human nature is a blank sheet of paper upon which they can write whatever they want; which is to say people will live by their own rules. The result of which can only be dysfunction for the family and social disorder for society.

What people believe about human nature and human sexuality does not change the truth of either one. Just as the DNA molecule contains information about the individual prior to his birth- information that cannot be changed or manipulated by the individual himself -so too does human nature come with pre-existing laws independent of what the community or State believes or says about it. Indeed, human nature is not a blank sheet of paper upon which we can write whatever we want without consequence. Instead, human nature has been given to mankind by God with instructions; its called the natural or the moral law. A child thrives, for instance, when he or she is loved as opposed to being ignored or hated. We cannot will it otherwise.

Dispensing with Marriage:

Another disturbing trend which is emerging in tandem with the growing acceptance of same-sex marriage is more and more couples are choosing not to get married. They are simply cohabitating. We should expect this if marriage is arbitrarily defined to include homosexual unions. People intuitively know that if something is subject to change because of a little political pressure here and a little social pressure there, then it is not that important; certainly not important enough to make sacrifices for it. Not only is the incentive to get married lessened, but the will to have children is challenged as well. This, we have seen in Europe, Japan, Russia. And unfortunately, we are seeing the beginnings of it in America. The Western population is aging quickly; or one can say- dying!

We have seen that some significant social shifts are occurring. But where is the Catholic Church in all of this? Or a better question might be: Are Catholics equal to their mission? I do not get the sense that leadership in the Church- both clergy and laity –are ahead of this curve. Sermons, pastoral letters, ecclesiastical documents and even papal encyclicals have not addressed these trends head-on. There is still a great deal of reluctance to offend people. And I am afraid that this trepidation of speaking and writing about these issues forthrightly plays no small role in the decline of Western Civilization.

One of the revolutionary contributions Christianity made to civilization is that it presented the human person- as if from the hand of God himself -with instructions, that is, with certain moral absolutes ingrained in its very nature. With the preaching of the Gospel people came to understand that they were created by God, created for God and created in the image of God. As such, the Divine Architect of human nature had something definite to say about it; something quite independent from what was commonly believed up to the time of Christ.

In any case, dispensing with marriage and the approval of same-sex marriage itself will have a counter-revolutionary effect on how we view the world. As I said before, if the union of man and woman (especially in wedlock) is the very image of God through which we understand God and ourselves, then the legitimacy of the same-sex marriage or unions will alter our perception of reality. As with ancient pagan civilization, human laws and human relationships will be arbitrary, unjust and oppressive. That's right! If traditional marriage and the nuclear family is not venerated as exclusively superior to all other partnerships and lifestyles then anything goes.

No Servant Above His Master:

This leads me to the first thing Catholics can do. As Jesus said, there is no servant above his master. That is to say what the master does, the servant also must do.

The New Testament quite often gives expression to masculine virtues. It uses combat imagery and even violence to communicate revealed truths. St. Paul, for instance, refers to the helmet of salvation and the shield of faith. Our Lord used hyperbole's of violence in order to inspire holiness such as plucking out an eye or cutting off a hand. When referencing to hell, he speaks of the grinding and gnashing of teeth where the worm does not die.

Furthermore, the spiritual and moral realities of combat, conflict and the ever looming threat of the enemy (which include the flesh, the world and Satan) are frequent themes from the first page of the Gospel of Matthew to the last page of the book of Revelation.

Today, however, we as Catholics address the issues in much softer and indirect ways. For instance, the ways of the world are depicted by the New Testament as an adversary of God. In fact, St. John and St. James asserted that the love of the world and the love of God are mutually exclusive. It’s either Mammon or God. That is the choice.

But the trend in Catholic circles, since the late 1960’s, rarely gives expression to this reality for fear that it might come across as despising the people of the world. As such, we affirm the truth while omitting the denunciation of error and sin. For instance, I heard many Catholics say they would rather “light a candle than curse the darkness.” That may sound nice but it is hardly biblical. Jesus spoke the truth about virtue, but he also publicly rebuked the vice of specific people. Moreover, the men and women that the Church has canonized as Saints did likewise. There are countless examples to this effect.

Although our Lord never blessed any tree that I am aware of, he did curse a fig tree. Perhaps this was to prefigure the fate of Jerusalem which ended being destroyed by the Roman army just forty years after his ascension. Indeed, he issued severe warnings concerning what awaited that illustrious city. He also warned the seven churches in the book of Revelation that he would come and remove their lamp stand if they did not repent. I would hate to think that our Lord’s pastoral approach is outdated; that it was to be applied in every century except the twentieth and the twenty-first century.

Recovering Mindset and Practices of Christ:

If Catholics want our younger generations to embrace the Gospel values of marriage and sexuality, we have to once again revisit the pastoral approach of Jesus, the Apostles and the Saints. They gave inspiration, they lifted up the downtrodden, and they consoled and provided hope to the hopeless. Nevertheless, they upheld high standards. And out of love for souls they also publicly rebuked sin by name. If need be, they confronted sinners when circumstances warranted it. This, no doubt, drew unwanted attention and unwanted consequences upon themselves.

St. John, the Apostle who wrote about Christian love more than any other, publicly confronted a troublemaker whose name was Diotrophes. St. Paul published names of blasphemers. St. Ambrose, a Father of the Church, publicly prevented Theodosius II, the Roman Emperor, from entering into the church because he had killed 7,000 Thessalonians during an uprising. Even our beloved twentieth century Saint, St. Padre Pio, chased out insincere penitents from his confessional booth. These men did not look for confrontations. But they knew that the love of souls required it at times.

Out of love for the younger generation we are required to do no less: To courageously call them to repentance and to bear the consequences. Sometimes, it means turning people away as our Lord did with the rich man or the man from the country of the Gerasenes who was once possessed. Our Lord himself said that those who do not listen to the Church are to be treated as outsiders. To be sure, this runs counter to our modern sensibilities. In fact, it clashes with what "we define" as Christian love. But many of our peers have taken Christian love to mean that we accept people where they are at and then cross our fingers they somehow come to know the truth about their sins. In the meantime, they continue in their sins and are led to believe that are in perfect communion with God when in fact they are not.

Those who are entrusted with leading and caring for souls- be it a teacher or a priest –quite often do not require repentance from those souls under their care. Inclusion at all costs is the motto! “Come and enjoy the sacraments,” we say. But as far as “plucking out the eye” or “cutting off the hand”- which represent those things that cause us to sin -well, we play it safe by leaving it up to the individual Christian. When the standards of Christ are not presented, or they are presented but failure to meet them is not met with any consequence, then the incentive to be holy and to follow Christ are compromised. It's good to remember that a Church with low standards is a Church without respect. Easy and unconditional access to the Sacraments is not only a departure from biblical norms and Church tradition, but as we have discovered in recent decades- it doesn't work! We have fifty years to show that it just doesn't work!

Our thinking has to change. We have to be proactive and unafraid of calling a spade a spade or a sin a sin. Love of souls and conversion itself demands it. If there are no sins to repent from then we can hardly invoke Christ as our Savior. And if people are unaware of the bad news, they can hardly appreciate the Good News. The salvation of youth demands that we communicate the positive and the negative, virtue and sin, heaven and hell, God and Satan. This certainly applies in particular to the sin of homosexual acts. Love for the homosexual person presupposes- at least in the biblical sense -that the sin of homosexuality be known. Without this knowledge, repentance is impossible. And I do believe that if you let the light of Christ shine in dark corners people will respect you for it. They may protest, but they will respect you. Even more importantly, those who struggle with homosexuality may choose to live chastely in order to experience the peace of Christ.

Keep in mind that with every person you offend with the truth, you inspire at least two to three more people who perhaps will never say anything to you.

One Point to Consider: A Very Important One

Another point I wish to draw your attention to is the adversarial nature of State-run education as it pertains to the mission of the Church. U.S. Bishops would provide a charitable service to our nation if they would campaign against the secular education system our children are subject to. In a Pastoral Letter in 1919 to the U.S. Bishops, James Cardinal Gibbons predicted what a State-run education would portend for America:

"The spirit of our people in general is adverse to State monopoly, and this for the obvious reason that such an absorption of control would mean the end of freedom and initiative. The same consequence is sure to follow when the State attempts to monopolize education; and the disaster will be much greater inasmuch as it will affect, not simply the worldly interests of the citizen, but also his spiritual growth and salvation."

In the 1960's alone, the percentage of students attending public schools increased from 59 percent to 73 percent. Now it is up to 90 percent. Conversely, as late as the 1950's, the Catholic Church in America educated 12 percent of all children. Today, she only educates 5 percent of them. -

To add insult to injury, parents who wish to send their children to Catholic schools have to pay double; they pay the taxes to fund public schools and then they have to compensate for the ever increasing tuition's of Catholic schools. And the reason for this spike results from a crisis of religious vocations. The vast majority of Catholic teachers in the early twentieth century were compromised of priests, sisters or brothers from religious orders. Being single and without a family, they did not require big salaries to feed a whole family. In the early twenty-first century, however, the vast majority of Catholic teachers are lay people.

The Catholic Church is being outdone by public education, certainly not in academics but in advancing its own values. No doubt, this State-run system has failed to produce academic results, but it has, in the last four decades, been infusing the secular spirit into our nation's children with great success. With that, the decline of marriage and the nuclear family has accelerated.

Leaders of the Church might want to consider a more assertive approach to these issues. In fact, it is perfectly consistent with the mission of the Church to criticize the failing institution of public education. Like our Lord who marched in the Temple only to scourge the greed and abuses with a whip (and then later predict its downfall), our spiritual leaders, animated with the same spirit, can make a great contribution by publicly challenging the monopoly of the State on education.

If, indeed, the unthinkable were to happen and the walls of State-run education were to fall (as with the Berlin wall), then the Light of the Gospel would more easily expand its influence on our nation's youth through the instrumentation of Catholic education and spiritual formation. To be sure, students benefiting from Catholic principles on sex, marriage and the family would increase from a meager 5 percent to a percentage far surpassing what the Catholic Church used to enjoy in the 1940's and 1950's. This will go a long way in winning back the younger generations to Christ and to the truth of marriage. The decline of America would be arrested and new life and vigor would be within each.

The tactics of accomplishing such a feat will be determined by the blessing of God, the determination of Christians and favorable circumstances. But it is my firm belief that as long as State-run education remains in force a State-run society will continue to strengthen. As Cardinal James Gibbons predicted in 1919, a disaster awaits that affects not only the economic interests of America, but the spiritual growth and salvation of its youth and of its citizens.